Editors’ note: This review of “Cast Away: Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis,” by Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, is the first in a series of Al-Fanar Media articles on books by or about refugees. We celebrate books, as they are an essential part of education, and want to bring attention to books in either English or Arabic that illuminate the global refugee crisis.
This week the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced that it is preparing for a surge in the number of refugees from Yemen, as the civil war intensifies on the country’s western coast. Thousands of Yemenis have already fled to neighboring countries. The next phase of the war is expected to drive hundreds of thousands more from their homes.
The global refugee crisis is the result of years of conflict in countries stretching from Nigeria in the west to Afghanistan in the east, with Sudan, Eritrea, Somalia, Yemen, Syria and Iraq in between. The statistics only measure the problem—they do not put a human face on it.
Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, a British foreign correspondent who writes for publications such as The Independent and Time, uses narrative to make sense of this vast issue and its impact on individual lives.. Her book Cast Away takes command of a huge mass of knowledge about her subject—the thousands of refugees who made harrowing journeys to Europe in pursuit of asylum from 2011 to the present—and presents it in the form of a single story.
The story has a wide cast of characters—a handful of people from a variety of backgrounds who undertook the harsh and dangerous journey from their home countries across the Mediterranean to Europe. There is an orphaned boy from Nigeria, a newly married couple from Eritrea, a family from Damascus. Their stories are told with compassion and engaged observation.
As we follow their progress, we learn about the shadowy economy of people smuggling. This is a business in which untrustworthy and ruthless men demand fees of thousands of euros for unreliable services; false passports and dubious itineraries are bought and sold in an open-air market in Athens; and people are crammed onto filthy, unseaworthy vessels to make hazardous passage to supposed havens in Malta, Italy and Greece.
On the way, we learn about the humanitarian and government organizations that handle these thousands of people, the latter at the mercy of government policies that change unpredictably and are subject to the irrational forces of politics. For instance, in 2013, the Italian government responded to the numbers of refugees who were drowning in transit by setting up a marine rescue mission called Operation Mare Nostrum. For the single year it operated, it intercepted and brought safely to land 150,000 refugees, mainly from Africa and the Middle East. But the operation was too expensive for some member states of the European Union, and they cut its funding.
We learn about the Dublin Regulation, an EU law that determines that a refugee’s fate is in the hands of the country where he or she first applies for asylum. If a refugee makes the mistake of putting a thumbprint on a document in a country with harsh immigration laws, then that is the country whose bureaucracy the refugee will have to deal with. It is better to enter the refugee bureaucracy of Germany or the Netherlands than of the EU states of southern Europe, which most refugees reach first.
The author weaves essential facts of this kind into the narrative in a way that never weighs it down, and we never lose sight of the characters themselves—ordinary people in an extraordinary predicament. The prose style is clear and unadorned: The author lets the facts and the characters’ experiences speak for themselves. Their stories are moving and engaging, and are given depth and context by the writer’s conscientious reporting and research. It’s an impressive piece of work, and a good book to read if one is looking for a readable overview about the migration of refugees into Europe.
This book was first published in 2016 and is available in the United Kingdom from Portobello Books 2017 (paperback).